Previous: Carl Tennant: The dance of the knights
The faithful couple – A missing urn of gunpowder – Explosive evidence – The passing of Matlal – Royal sacrifice – The fall of Eldorado – Escape from Hell
The one thing that to my knowledge is exclusive to schooling
one’s children on a scientific expedition, is that your children
might learn to kill. E___ does not, to my knowledge, provide live
targets for their rifle team. On that fateful trip along the
Kasai river, before we lost Iris, both Alexandra and Carl had
firearms, and used them. I would have given anything to spare
them that experience, but we have to accept the hand that Fate
deals us. I watched them closely after the firefight. Carl lost
his lunch when the first fight was over, but he had kept firing
accurately throughout. Alexandra didn’t seem to be affected at
all, which was frightening, until Iris found her a little way off,
What do you say to your child after that? Our use of deadly force
was completely justified. We would all have been slaughtered
if we had not defended ourselves. But nevertheless, they were
both old enough to understand fully what they had done. Carl
regretted most the bandits he had missed. Alexandra regretted
most that she had not killed some of the bandits outright,
but only wounded them, condemning them to a slow death.
Both Carl and Alexandra came out of that experience not only
adults, but warriors, willing and able to use whatever measures
are needed when the time comes. In the places where we must go,
that is an advantage. My children are frightening creatures. Which
is a condition that I will probably never fully come to terms
— Philip Tennant, “Parenting for explorers”
One evening, instead of Citlali, her husband Tenoch, a silent, lean man, came to bring me my dinner of tlaxkalli, a kind of pancake filled with beans, tomato, and of course a copious amount of hot chillis and salt. He looked round for a place to put down the plate, and I pointed him at one of my work tables.
“Where is Citlali?” I asked.
“Sick,” said Tenoch, with an angry scowl on a face that had never smiled as long as I had known him.
Tenoch said nothing, only looked in the direction of the Priests’ quarters. We looked at each other a moment, both knowing, neither of us knowing what to say.
“Good ixhui.” Tenoch turned round.
“Wait.” I put a hand on Tenoch’s shoulder. “It’s not her fault, Tenoch.”
As soon as the words left my lips, I knew I had misspoken. Tenoch’s body tensed up, as if he were going to punch me in the face for even hinting at any wrongdoing on Citlali’s part. I would have gladly accepted it.
“I know, Alchemist.” Tenoch clenched his fists, then slowly got the better of his anger. “I have seen what happened to my friend’s sister. And to the daughter of the man who used to work next to me. They are seen. And then they are called. Until they become ugly, or until they fight. Or they become pregnant. And then they are…” Tenoch closed his eyes. “Sent away,” he said, in a whisper.
“I will end him,” I said. “Will you help?”
Tenoch gave a low kind of grunt. As he turned away to leave, he gave an almost imperceptible nod. Then he disappeared down the corridor.
There is a knack to walking quickly with a single crutch on one leg, but not a particularly graceful one. It comes down to a balanced hop. In this manner, I made my way to the King’s chambers. I knocked on the door and was let in by one of the King’s personal servants. I don’t remember his name. The King had already gone to bed, and I waited patiently for him to re-emerge. He came in, wearing only a long woollen garment, richly decorated with gold beads and painted in bright colours. He sat down on a chair, and looked down on me.
“Forgive me, your Highness, I would rather the Sun fell from the sky and devour me than for me to disturb the sleep of him on whose shoulders rest the entire kingdom of Anctapolepl.”
“Then why have you come?”
“Your Highness, I have disturbing news. This afternoon, I made five urns of gunpowder to further the King’s goals. I added them to the two hundred and twenty urns that are already there. But something was wrong. The Great Warrior Himself, in the voice of Lady Itzel, told me to count the urns. When I did, I counted only two hundred and twenty four urns. Knowing of my own failings, Your Highness, I immediately recounted, but it is inescapable. One of the urns… is missing.”
The King looked at me with a thoughtful expression, slowly rubbing his chin. “Who would do such a thing?”
“Unknown to me are the motivations of our enemies, your Highness. But whoever laid his hands on that urn, is a traitor.”
The King nodded slowly. “Clearly the fear of angering the Gods is no longer sufficient to keep the unfaithful from the door. I will have a guard posted by the room where the powder is kept. And I will have this matter investigated.”
“Your wisdom, as always, shines with the power of the Sun, your Highness. By your will, this traitor will surely be caught, and all his secrets laid bare.”
The next evening, Citlali was back. She was wearing a hood covering her hair and most of her face, part of a long-sleeved dress. I watched her closely as she put down my dinner as she always did: Plate, stack of tlaxkalli, bowl of sauce, cup, jug of water. As she reached out to put my cup down, I could see a bruise on her wrist that had almost faded away. She glanced at me, then quickly looked away. She mumbled a few words, then made to walk away.
She looked at me. I limped over to her and took her to a corner of the room, where I had one of the barrel-sized urns that I used to store my rapidly growing supply of gunpowder. It was marked with the single Nahuatl symbol for tletl, meaning ‘fire’. To avoid any sparks, I had coated the rim of the urn and the lid with grease, which I touched with a finger and showed Citlali.
“One of these urns is missing. It contains a powder most important to the future of the Kingdom of Anctapolepl. You are allowed in many of the chambers of the Nobility, are you not?”
She nodded, and the ghost of mutual knowledge shimmered between us.
“There are only two places where these urns are allowed to be, and they are these chambers and the storage place in the square. If ever you see one of these urns anywhere else, you must not come to me, but you must go directly to the King, and tell him that you have found that which was stolen from the Alchemist’s store. Will you do that?”
Citlali looked at me, guessing I don’t know how much of what I had planned. She slowly nodded her head, eyes shining with held-back tears.
“Good girl,” I said. “Do not fear. All will be well.”
My other good friend in the Priesthood, Nochtli, was still plotting my doom. Though to go against me openly now was a sure way to ruin, he found numerous ways to sow the seeds of doubt in the King’s mind. Overtly, he had adopted an amicable attitude towards me, often inviting me to his table. I accepted his invitations as often as I turned them down, and invited him back to my chambers. And so, while to all appearances being on the best of terms, we both seethed with hatred. I almost enjoyed these meals, often waited upon by Citlali, and eating the rarer dishes that contained either meat or fish. It felt like a game of chess, both of us waiting for the other to make a mistake, and then to swoop in for the kill.
Nochtli was the child of peasants who had tilled the fields far to the North, where the ground was barren and crops would often fail. In desperation, they had left their home, with Nochtli a twelve year old boy. They had stumbled on Anctapolepl’s rich fields, and not knowing what else to do, had offered up their son to the priesthood, claiming some kind of vision Nochtli had told them about, of the Feathered Serpent Quetzalcoatl calling him. Nochtli had been accepted, and at a very young age had learnt about the power struggles even among novice priests. Through a careful choice of friends, enemies, and victims, he had quickly climbed through the ranks and grown into a ruthless young man with a keen mind for politics. The Anctapolepl priesthood did not have a High Priest as such. All that stood above the priests was the King himself. Nevertheless, Nochtli was the first among them.
Of course, even though the King’s inquiries were supposed to be secret, he knew of the disappearance of a barrel full of gunpowder. Nothing much went on in the city without Nochtli knowing about it. I’m sure he knew the habits and tastes of every priest in the city, including Matlal’s.
One evening, we were sitting at one of our shared meals. I had a cup of hot xocolatl, he had felt the need to revive childhood memories with a mug of octli.
“Strange business, Alchemist. Why would someone steal an urn full of fire? Unless one has your secret knowledge, all one can do is kill oneself.”
“A little knowledge is a dangerous gift, tlamacazqui. They may think from watching me, that they know how to tame this beast. But it will betray them.”
“They? Do you think there are more traitors than one?”
“There is no such thing as one rat, tlamacazqui. Where there is one, there are more. I am confident that the King will weed them all out and make an example of them.”
I sipped my hot drink of xocolatl, a word meaning ‘bitter water’. The way the Aztec drank it is far away from our cup of hot cocoa before bed. It included, unsurprisingly, chillis, and a range of herbs. I was slowly acquiring a taste for it.
“Who do you suspect, Alchemist?”
“Not you, of course,” I said with a little laugh. “Already you wield more power than anyone else in the kingdom, save only the King himself.”
Nochtli laughed with me. “And you, Alchemist? Are you likewise above suspicion?”
“Why would I steal one urn? I have hundreds. To put at the King’s disposal, of course.”
“It will be interesting to see where finally that urn turns up,” said Nochtli. He drained his mug of octli and put it down on the table. I finished my drink.
“If you will excuse me now, tlamacazqui, I must return to my work.”
“Count well your urns, Alchemist,” said Nochtli.
Every few days, there would be an audience with the King, all of his priests, one or two administrators, and as a recent addition, the King’s Alchemist. These meetings were usually nothing special, to do with the daily running of a city of five thousand souls, the organisation of the festivals. Given my limited grasp of Nahuatl, most of this went far over my head. My presence was mostly ornamental. This particular meeting, though, was to be more exciting than many others. The chief administrator sat next to the King with a sheet of paper and ran his finger down a line of dots, lines, parallellograms and flags. The Aztec had a number system unlike our own, in that it was based on the number twenty rather than the number ten. Mathematical historians will be interested to know that the Aztec were among the few peoples that invented the number zero. The administrator was in the middle of the projected corn production, when the beaded curtain was pulled aside and a functionary came in and whispered into the King’s ear. King Ilhicamina asked a short question, and the functionary nodded.
“Send her in,” said the King.
The functionary left, and came back a few moments later with his hand on Citlali’s shoulder. The poor girl was shaking like a leaf under the gaze of the entire Antapolepl priesthood.
“Speak child,” said the King. “Why have you come to our meeting?”
Citlali went down on her knees before the King. It took her a few tries to find her voice. “I have found that which was stolen from the Alchemist’s store.”
The King looked at Citlali with burning eyes. “Approach, child.”
Citlali got to her feet and stood before the King. I felt a pang of guilt for having involved her in this scheme, even though she herself would be the first to benefit from it. If this went wrong, she would die. She walked over to the King, who bent over.
“What have you found, and where have you found it?”
Citlali whispered into the King’s ear, then kneeled before him, head bowed, not daring to look up. The King’s gaze fell upon Matlal. He said nothing, waiting for Matlal to make the first comment. Matlal bowed his head deep.
“Your Highness, brighter than the Sun…”
The King interrupted him. “Matlal. Have you anything to confess to your King?”
Matlal turned pale as a sheet under his brown skin. He raised his hands above his head and kneeled before King Ilhicamina.
“Your Highness, I swear upon the light in my eyes! I have done nothing wrong! I have nothing to confess!”
The King barked an order to the guards outside the doors, who came in and positioned themselves by the door.
“Nobody leaves this room without my orders! Alchemist! Nochtli! follow me, and bring this child.”
I followed the King and Nochtli as fast as I could, not looking at Citlali. We entered Matlal’s chambers. Standing in a corner, covered with a blanket, was my missing urn. The King turned his eyes to me.
“Alchemist, open that urn.”
I hopped over on my crutch and obeyed. I scooped up a handful of black powder and let the small grains fall back into the urn.
“This is the Holy Fire that was stolen from my store, Your Highness. Enough to take down the wall of the temple. What a fool Matlal is to keep this in his very chambers.”
Nochtli’s eyes darkened. “Matlal is many things, but he is not a fool. Nor is he tired of life, with so much to occupy himself.” He shot Citlali a look. “I humbly suggest that Matlal may not have been the one to put this powdered Hell here.”
“Who else?” I said. “This powder represents the power to destroy kingdoms! Matlal was always hungry for power.”
This was a safe assumption. One does not become a tlamacazcui if one is not a power-hungry scheming conniving bastard. It is the most important survival trait in such exalted circles.
“He would have hidden it somewhere else. Not in his very bedroom, for the maid-servant to find.”
“Alchemist!” The King turned to me. “What does Huitzilopochtli say of this theft?”
I closed my eyes, turned my head away, a gesture that represented talking to Itzel.
“The Great Warrior is silent on the subject, Your Highness, as He often is when we already know all that we need.”
“No matter,” said the King. “We will get the needed information ourselves.”
From the fate of many a sacrificial victim, I would have expected Matlal to be tortured for information, but nothing of the kind happened. There were many questions asked of many people, and they were answered. In a group of people who were so fierce in their political battles for supremacy, even the slightest crack in one’s armour would quickly be exploited, and that spelled the end for Matlal. Rumours had been carefully planted by Tenoch, about strange behaviour. These rumours grew like a snowball, until the story became clear enough. Matlal, overcome by a hunger for power, had taken an urn of the black powder for his own, and hidden it away in his room. The truth of these stories was completely irrelevant to the proceedings. The accusation was the proof. Nochtli, seeing with unerring precision which way the wind was blowing, promptly denounced his colleague. Matlal undoubtedly had planned to use the gunpowder in ways counter to the interest of the King, the people of Anctapolepl, and the very gods. For this, there could be only one punishment: death.
Execution methods in Anctapolepl included stabbing, stoning, and strangulation. The King, however, wanted to make an example of Matlal. The King had commanded me to carry out the execution, and I had felt no hesitation. Matlal was taken out to an unused part of town. Stakes were driven into the ground, and Matlal was tied to them, wearing only a loincloth. The very urn of gunpowder Matlal had acquired was buried underneath him, and I laid a track of gunpowder to a safe distance. I bent over him.
“Do you feel the urn beneath you, Matlal? I put that in your room to kill you. I will kill all the priests, and I will kill the King. Know this before you die.” I ran my hand over his stomach. “You are right, Matlal. The touch of flesh before you destroy it is quite extraordinary.”
As I limped away, he started screaming, I could not understand what he was saying. I wasn’t even sure that anyone else could. I held out my hand, and someone handed me the torch. I dropped it onto the gunpowder, and it started to hiss as the fire crept to where the priest lay, writhing, pulling at his restraints like a madman. The fire reached him, and with a deafening roar of anger, the gunpowder exploded. There was a huge cloud of smoke, and from it, I could see shreds of human flesh flying upward.
I should feel remorse.
To this very day, I do not.
On the rare occasions that I do feel the pangs, all I have to do is remember the fear and pain in Citlali’s eyes, remember the horror of Itzel screaming as Matlal ripped her beating heart from her body, remember the line of sacrificial victims walking slowly to the top of the temple. That makes any regret vanish like smoke on the wind.
Nochtli was not a stupid man. The idea that someone had planted the gunpowder in Matlal’s room was not far-fetched and he had not abandoned it. We resumed our weekly dinners together. Citlali would bring us our dinner, and observing her, I imagined that she looked more energetic. She would catch me looking at her, and a hint of a smile would pass over her face. Or maybe I was fooling myself. Citlali was not out of danger yet. The priests were still committing their horrors upon the population of Anctapolepl, in some cases raiding nearby settlements and bringing its inhabitants in for sacrifice. I mentioned this to Nochtli.
“They are honoured, Alchemist. How many of us can say that they will sit at the side of the Gods? You have the ear of one who does. You should know.”
“She has ascended, tlamacazcui Nochtli. She has grown beyond human emotions such as joy, sadness. She has become truly holy. And yet, she has not forgotten us. I see her often in my dreams, shining in many colours.”
“Of course. Our devotions teach us this. What is the last thing she has told you?”
“She has told me that it is time to start forging the tools of war for the final days. They must be made from tempered steel and sanctified gold. The King was wise to gift me… no, to allow me to be in the presence of the golden statue of Huitzilopochtli. The spirit of the Great Warrior, combined with the strength of our steel, will make for unstoppable weapons. No conquistadores will stand in our way. They will be as corn before our scythes. To this end, I have commanded Yaotl to melt down the statue, that we may blend the gold into our weapons. Axes, swords, cannons.”
“The days of reckoning are finally upon us, then?”
“Not yet, but soon. Long will be the making of our ultimate weapons. The first weapon, I will give to the King, that he may lead us into battle. Can you imagine, Nochtli? The life-giving Sun glinting upon his golden stature as our soldiers, ten times the strength of mere humans, march before him. Our mighty cannons breathing fire and death upon our enemies. Would that I still had two legs, Nochtli, that I might march beside him to witness our glorious victory.”
“I have seen that might, Alchemist. Matlal has felt it.”
“And despite this display of the king’s might in his anger, there are still those who seek to possess the gunpowder. What they want with it, I cannot begin to imagine. But it must be protected, and protected better. Last night, the guards heard noises. The sound of running feet. Clearly someone expected them to pursue, so that their henchmen could do their worst. The captain of the guard told me this.”
“Did they catch whoever it was?”
“No, they escaped, curse them. This cannot be allowed to continue, Nochtli. We must store our gunpowder in a safer place.”
The next afternoon, I requested and obtained an audience with the King. I explained what had happened. The powder on which we depended for our glorious victory was in danger. There was only one place where none dare go, and that was the vault His Highness had shown me on the day of my testing. The King saw the wisdom in this, and soon after, a row of peasants walked back and forth between the vaults and the gunpowder store, much to the relief of the guards, who had witnessed what a single barrel could do, and were acutely aware of how much gunpowder was stored behind their very backs. I had all the torches removed from the vault, and the vault was closed. From that moment on, I made no more gunpowder. We had enough, and it was exactly where it needed to be.
Gold, as it turns out, combines very badly with steel. Using it in any quantity turns the steel unworkable, and I needed much thought, experiment, and prayer. In the end, Yaotl and I ended up forging an axe as normal, then gold plating it. I was actually marginally pleased with the way it looked, shining yellow up to the edge, which shone bright. And as it turned out, we had some gold left over, which I returned to my chambers. It looked much better in neat tidy ingots than ever it did in the shape of a blood-thirsty deity.
And so the axe of King Ilhicamina the Second was forged, to wield in the glorious battle to restore power to where it rightfully belonged. It would probably shatter on the head of the first person he attacked with it, but that was not my concern.
Of course, we didn’t just hand the King his axe with a simple jovial ‘There you go, then,’ and be done with it. When the metal had cooled, and we saw it was good, we wrapped it in woollen cloth and placed it in a casket made to hold it. That casket was actually made by Tenoch, who had been a carpenter before he had been abducted into this accursed city. He had met Citlali here, so he did not complain. For the occasion, I was carried to the King’s quarters in a chair carried by six warriors. Yaotl walked before us, scattering to the sides anyone fool enough to stand in our way. We walked up to the King’s chambers, and my chair was set down. All the priests were gathered round to witness the King receiving his weapon from the Gods. Yaotl stood before the king, carrying the casket in his arms. I stood next to him. I took a deep breath, and started my speech.
“Great Ilhicamina, Descendant of Moctezuma Ilhuicamina, who pierces the Sky with arrows, by the will of the Winged Serpent Quetzalcoatl, of Anctapolepl King. Receive now the weapon, forged from the steel of the Earth, imbued with the spirit of the Great Warrior Huitzilopochtli, the Axe of Ilhicamina! May it serve you as a faithful tool in destroying the enemies of Anctapolepl, and scattering their limbs to the four winds, as foretold in the Ancestral lore.”
I opened the casket, and torch light glinted beautifully on the gilt surface of the axe. For a fleeting moment, even I myself was taken by the moment. The King rose, resplendent in his royal garb, and took the axe from its casket. He raised it high above his head.
“Behold! Behold the power and glory of the Gods! Death to the enemies of Anctapolepl.”
Holding the weapon reverendly in one hand, he nodded at me.
“Have thanks, Alchemist of the King. I shall put this weapon to the use for which it was forged. By the light of the Sun, and by the grace of the Gods, I swear it! Now leave us, Alchemist. I have a sacrifice to perform that only the Men of the Gods may look upon.”
I bowed low, and accompanied by the warriors, with Yaotl next to me, I walked out of the King’s chambers. I had no desire to stay. Itzel had once explained to me that the sacrifice the King was referring to was an offering of his very own blood. This blood was obtained from his genitals. At that point, I had told Itzel that I did not wish to be King, and she had quite understood. With a little smile at the memory, I turned to Yaotl.
“My friend, I have need of your strength once more. There is one final urn of gunpowder that we must place in the royal vault.”
I had one urn left, only half full, so I hadn’t put it in the vault. Yaotl and I went to my chambers, and Yaotl picked up the urn as though it was a pint of ale. Together, we walked to the vault, lit a single lantern, dismissed the guards, and placed the barrel next to the rest. I looked up at Yaotl.
“Now that I am here, I might as well count the urns, to see if any are missing. I don’t expect so, but one can never be too sure.”
“Yes, Alchemist,” said Yaotl. He turned round and left to rejoin the guard at the door to the King’s chambers. I turned round and faced the stacks of gunpowder and gold. Part of me wanted simply to drop the candle in the nearest barrel and be done with it, but in a fit of vindictive passion I decided against it. I wanted to see this cesspit of a city blow up, even if shortly afterwards, I would end up under the rubble. From the pile of artefacts, I selected a golden bowl as the urns were too heavy for me to lift. Using the bowl, I carefully laid out a track of gunpowder, snaking back and forth through the room to give me enough time to reach a safe distance. Hopping around on one leg near a large stack of gunpowder, a lit lantern in one hand, and an exposed bowl of the stuff in the other is not an undertaking free of risk. But to quote another man who went into the cellar of the Seat of Power with honest intent, a desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy. When I reached the door, I stood still a moment, on the balance between ‘do’ and ‘don’t’. I could simply go back in, sweep up the gunpowder, and continue life in Anctapolepl as it had been for ages now. But I would not be able to survive here indefinitely. I was riding on the crest of a wave now, but it wouldn’t last. Then, I thought of the endless rows of people, slaughtered without reason, discarded like human refuse. All the men who had this on their conscience were sitting on top of this very pile of gunpowder. I took the candle out of the lantern, held it in front of me, looking at the flame, quiet in the still air.
“To blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains,” I whispered.
I put the candle flame in the very end of my trail of gunpowder, and saw it begin to sputter, hiss, whisper in a dead tongue promises of death and destruction. I left the room, nodded at the luckless guards outside, and on my crutch hopped outside, and as far away from the Royal Chambers as I could.
I had worried a great deal about whether my supply of gunpowder would be enough, whether the containment of the vault would be enough to cause the kind of explosion I wanted. I worried that there might be a gap somewhere that would keep the charges from exploding. I needn’t have worried. With a noise as from the very bowels of Hell, all of my gunpowder exploded at once, taking the top off the entire building and raining gold fragments on the accursed city of Anctapolepl. The wall above it collapsed, and buried King Ilhicamina and his depraved idolators forever. In one instant, I had destroyed the ruling class, and the downtrodden people of this city were now free to govern their affairs as they themselves saw fit. Not that that was at the forefront of my thoughts, with a maddened smile, I whispered only one word, one name: Itzel.
Then, incredibly, part of the rubble moved. With a bellow as from a primeval creature, the rocks rolled away and the massive form of Yaotl freed itself. He was bleeding from several wounds, and there were many burns on him, but he at once saw me, and moved forward, axe in hand, with the slow steps of one who knows he will not have to run to catch his prey. His hand pointed at me, and his teeth bared in a growl.
I thought of running, but then realised the futility. He would catch me with but a few steps of his long legs. I looked up at him helplessly as he grabbed me by my shirt, pulled me up, and shook me.
“This is your doing! You have killed our King! Nochtli was right! Matlal was innocent! It is you who have brought this on us. Now, my fists will punish you!”
He dropped his axe to the floor, drew back his hand, then punched me in the face with such force that he might have snapped my neck. I could hear the crack of bones in my head.
“I will kill you slowly, Philip Tennant! You have betrayed us, and you have betrayed her! No quick death for you! You will feel the pain of all the sacrifices, and yet all the gods will see you and spit on you for the piece of dung that you are!”
He lifted me bodily and threw me down at the foot of the stairs.
“Up! Climb the stairs, as all those you betrayed have done, all those who gave their lives to the Great Warrior so that you could bring them back to glory! As she did!”
I rolled onto my back. “No!”
“Climb, Philip Tennant! Or I will break your leg and then make you climb.”
Yaotl picked up his axe, and swung it at my foot with frightening force. I could just about pull it away in time, I do not doubt that he could have cut off my foot as I lay there.
“Climb, you son of a hairless dog!”
With the strength of desperation, I started to crawl up the stairs, kicked and beaten by Yaotl. As long as I was climbing, he would not kill me, I thought. About two thirds of the way up I felt his massive hand on my neck, and he pulled me up.
“Now I take your name away, Philip Tennant! You are now Coyotl, and I will beat you like a dog for what you have done.” He threw me down on the stone steps again. “Now climb, Coyotl! Or your master will whip you!”
I tried crawling up the stairs, but I felt the hard stroke of Yaotl’s axe handle across my back, and almost passed out from the pain. I collapsed. Yaotl kicked me again.
Almost blinded, I started up the stairs again, up to the top of the temple, the altar, where no doubt my ordeal would end. As I climbed, Yaotl walked round me, kicking, beating, screaming at me. Still, I went on, till I reached the top of the stairs, the place where I had first entered this city. Yaotl gripped my ankle in an iron grip, and dragged me inside. He threw me onto the altar.
“This is where they left their bodies, Dog! This… this is where she left her body!”
I turned onto my back, and at that moment, the mid-day sun shone through the top of the volcano, down on the altar, down on… I closed my eyes, looked again. Standing by the altar was Itzel, dressed in purest white, her face turned up to the Sun, to the path that she must tread. Her arms were raised to the heavens, holding the cruel knife that had cut her. But none of that had happened yet. She was still pure and beautiful beyond enduring.
“Please,” I whispered. “Spare her. Take me instead.”
At that moment, a shadow fell over her, and over me, and she disappeared. Yaotl grabbed my throat in both his hands.
“This is not where you die, Dog! This is a place where people of honour leave to meet the Gods! Your diseased blood will not defile this place.”
Yaotl pulled me from the altar, and walked outside holding me up in his hands. Then, with a great heave, he threw me down the giant’s steps of the pyramid of Anctapolepl. Tumbling, tumbling down I went, until I landed on the apetlatl, the place of disposal of the bodies. Miraculously, I was not dead, nor even unconscious. I found I could open only one eye, but what I saw made me gasp. Forgotten for all this time, hidden under a rock so that only the dead could have seen it, lay my revolver. I turned onto my stomach, and like a beaten dog, I crawled towards it. I heard Yaotl’s shouts as he came down the stairs. I put my hand on my revolver as Yaotl stepped from the stairs. I turned to face him. Yaotl’s axe came round, and I could only throw up my arm to deflect it. The sharp blade cut into my forearm. I rolled over once, twice, then aimed my revolver at Yaotl’s head. I pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.
“Now I take your flesh, Dog, and I will feed it to the vultures! You will see them feed on your…”
I pulled the trigger again. The gun went off with a sharp rapport, and a tiny trickle of blood ran down Yaotl’s forehead, cutting him off in mid-sentence. His knees gave, and he fell forward, almost on top of me. I looked into his dead eyes.
“Forgive me,” I whispered. I closed my eyes, and lay down to die.
As the more astute reader will already have guessed, I did not die there. Instead, I woke up in my chambers in bed. There was a bandage round my head and over my right eye. I found I couldn’t use my left hand, and that there was another bandage round my left arm. I smelled of the ointment put on the bruises left by Yaotl’s admonitions. The beaded curtain rustled, and Tenoch walked in.
“You are awake, good. Citlali said you would be dead, but I know that when you get hurt, you always take a nice sleep on the apetlatl, so I went there and there you were. So was Yaotl, but he didn’t have the back of his head anymore and you did. So I brought you here and Citlali patched you up. Pardon the piss-poor bandages but you blew the Healer to tiny little bits so that’s your own damn fault.”
For a moment, I could only stare, partly because the taciturn Tenoch had just said more to me than he had in all the months before. I sank back into the pillow, making an inventory of the places where I hurt. I found it more practical to say that my absent right foot did not hurt at all, and leave it at that.
“Is…” I tried to speak, but my jaw wouldn’t move properly. I tried again. “Is Citlali alright?”
“Yes, yes. She did what she could, but it looks like we’ll have to find someone to take a better look at you. You’re a sad heap of bones.”
“How is the City?”
“Still going. Grain still grows, water still flows, sun still rises, though we need more sacrifices so the Gods won’t stop doing that. New priests are choosing people.”
My jaw dropped. “Sacrifices?! With all the priests gone, you still sacrifice each other? Are you mad?”
Tenoch shrugged. “King is dead. All the priests are dead. Temple is still standing. Gods are still alive. They need their servants just like last week.”
“Damn it, Tenoch. Please, please tell me that you or Citlali are not among the honoured?”
Tenoch looked disgusted. “Would in other places. Sitting by the Gods is a good thing. But not for this city. This city is a shithole. Always has been, always will be. All the good people are leaving, so it’ll be more of a shithole. Now that the door is open, we’re leaving. Better places to find. Oh. Everybody thinks you are dead. They won’t like you when they see you. Better come with us. We can take you to where the white men are.”
“Yes please, but first I have some things to pack.”
I had entered through the secret entrance to the north. I left by night through the main gate to the south. Citlali had commandeered one of the King’s llamas. It was strong enough to carry some essential supplies. At the bottom of its bags were about sixty pounds of gold left over from our weapon producton project. As luck would have it, I had lost my right leg, and now the Gods had blessed me by maiming my left arm, so I could still use a crutch. Tenoch seemed to know where he was going, and Citlali, who had been born in the City, was happy to follow. I am sure I was holding them back, and without me, they would have covered twice the distance each day. Neither seemed to care much. They were free, they were outside, and they had each other. On this trip, I learnt that Citlali had a lovely singing voice, and that Tenoch could spot edible fruit a mile away. At night, they showed a magnificent disregard for the fact that I was trying to sleep not three yards away from them.
I would have enjoyed this journey tremendously, if it hadn’t been for my injuries. Especially my eye became inflamed, and hurt a great deal. All I could do was put a few drops of Laudanum in my water, and endure. As the days went on, the drops I needed became more and more, until the world took on the same dream-like quality it had when first I entered the City.
At last, we came to a river. Tenoch said that we would have to swim it. I shook my head, sending stabs of pain through my eye. In my broken and Laudanum-addled state, I would simply sink to the bottom and live there, among the fish. To postpone the inevitable, we travelled upstream. The sunlight on the water was too bright, and divided itself in many different colours, like rainbows but more bitter-sharp like xocolatl. I drank, but it tasted of nothing. Out of the heavens, a bellowing beast came gliding down, settled on the river. Tenoch waved at it, and I could see his arms opening and closing like a fan. Upon the beast’s back were its minders, like remora following a shark. They came to the land, and suddenly Citlali was close to me, and I wanted to embrace her, but I had only one arm that worked, and no right leg at all. How could that be? One would think one would notice if one’s legs went missing. Tenoch and the remoras lifted me up, and fed me to the beast. Its belly was dark and smelled of a fire, but not of wood fire. I felt happy. So very happy. Then came soft warm darkness.
I assure you that this account is punctiliously accurate in all respects. I came to my senses once more, and was greeted by an English doctor named Livesey. He had changed the bandages on my eye and on my arm while I was unconscious. He puffed at his pipe.
“Welcome back to the land of the living, old chap. How are you feeling?”
I considered. “Broken in too many places,” I said, finally.
“As good a way of putting it as any, I suppose,” said Doctor Livesey. “You’re lucky I’m on board this bucket. Anyone else wouldn’t have known where to start with you. I’ve managed to save your left arm, or what’s left of it. Can’t work miracles. I’m afraid the eye is lost, sorry about that. Massive infection. Would have done you in if I’d have left it. The leg you already knew about, I suppose.”
“Sadly, yes. How about my companions? Tenoch and Citlali? Are they on board?”
Doctor Livesey shook his head. “We set them down on the far bank, and they went their merry way. They wanted us to bury you in our own Heathen ways. But it seems you’ll be able to arrange that for yourself. You aren’t in danger of kicking the bucket just now, and you’re very welcome. Oh.” The doctor pointed at the two bags that had been on the llama’s back. “I believe these are yours. They are rather heavy. What’s in them?”
The steamer that had kindly taken my half-missing, half-dead body on board, belonged to a missionary organisation dedicated to spreading the Good Word in these inhospitable places. Being devout Christians, they had kept their fingers away from my bags, and had refrained from simply throwing me overboard and making off with a fortune in gold. In Macapá, I sold one of my ingots of gold, and so was able to book passage on an ocean liner to England. We steamed up the river Avon to Bristol Harbour. Some inquiry revealed that my daughter Alexandra was currently at an obscure little University in Ipswich named after Charles Algernon Parsons, just a half-day’s train trip away from Bristol. I arrived there in the late afternoon, and disappointingly found out that only Alexandra had been there recently. She had attached herself to an expedition led by the esteemed Prof. Alan Wadcroft, and set off for darkest Africa to look for my son Carl, who had gone missing. Why can’t today’s youth sit still for more than five minutes at a time?
With nothing else to do, I committed myself to the care of the local physician, a Dr. Bernhardt. I owe the good doctor an enormous debt of gratitude for my current physical condition, and if ever he wants to travel anywhere in Europe, he has but to name the place and Lady I will be at his service.
Three weeks and several operations on my left arm later, Wadcroft’s expedition came back, and I could finally embrace my daughter for the first time in several years. The story of her expedition into Sudan has been told elsewhere, so I need not say much about it here. It would have been nice to say that all was well, especially with the return of my son Carl, a native young lady, and their child. But unfortunately, trouble is brewing. Never a dull moment for the Tennant family.
As I write these words, Lady I is sailing back to Ipswich, where we will regroup, plan our future, and see what we can do to thwart the plans of the rather shadowy organisation named Prometheus. One thing is clear to me. I have named my airship after kind Lady Itzel, or Lady Iris, or both. I still do not know whether I want to choose. For our own safety, she will have to grow sharp teeth. The empty gun decks will once more have weapons of destruction in them. And then, I will come down from the heavens, and peck at Prometheus’ liver myself.